"Lacrosse is often referred to as the healing game by its Native American creators…We [the Cornell University men’s lacrosse team] had overcome the greatest tragedy of our lives to accomplish more than we ever expected. Everyone was so proud of this resilient, selfless group of young men who gave everything they had to each other and our season... [George Boiardi] taught us the essence of being an honorable teammate and an authentic team."
Full disclosure: I’m writing this summary of The Hard Hat by Jon Gordon entirely from my notes. My review copy traveled with my son to Iowa, where he’s training for several weeks with USA’s junior national volleyball team.
It just seemed more important for him to read the book’s advice on what it takes to be a great teammate during his off-hours in Des Moines than for me to have my copy as a fallback reference while writing this summary.
The Hard Hat retells the story of George Boiardi, a Cornell University lacrosse player whose 2004 death in the middle of a game left a lasting impact on his teammates, on Cornell’s lacrosse program and on the lives of those who appreciated how he went about the hard work of being a great teammate.
After his death, the team imprinted his jersey number, 21, on the sort of hard hat one might find on a blue-collar worker at a construction site. They did this for two reasons: to remember George Boiardi and to remind themselves of everything he stood for.
Gordon focuses on how Boiardi’s life provided 21 practical ways an athlete, parent, employee, manager or anyone else can become a better teammate. Whether it’s never taking a play off or leaving a place better than you found it, all of the advice shares a common refrain: It takes a lot of hard, hard work.
Being a great teammate is as hard as being a great performer
"In today’s self-consumed world, you have to work as hard to be a great teammate as you do to be a great performer."
Picture the typical advertisement for a sports drink, athletic shoe or workout gear. We see an individual making the winning goal. Or that same individual lifting weights or doing training sprints to prepare for the moment when she or he will make that winning goal.
We never watch someone cleaning a locker room after a game like George Boiardi did in an effort to leave every place better than he found it. Making a commercial about the hard work of being a great teammate just doesn’t sell as much stuff.
The Hard Hat puts the appropriate focus on how much effort it does take. It’s not something that happens naturally, nor is it as simple as sharing a few pithy soundbites in a locker room or during a staff meeting. It takes deliberate, conscious effort—as much or more effort as it takes to be a great performer.
George Boiardi understood the difference between talking about being a great teammate and actually doing it. He believed that “well done is better than well said.” And his legacy is not the legacy of one who suffered a tragic death on a sports field. It’s the legacy of one who worked hard at being a great teammate while he was alive.
Don’t compete to be better than others. Compete to be the best you can be.
"He was one of the most competitive players we had ever seen, but he wasn’t driven by the need to be better than anyone else. He just wanted to be the best he could be and always drove himself to improve."
According to Harvard business scholar, Michael Porter, “competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”
George Boiardi understood this concept at its most practical level. For him, competition wasn’t about competing to be the top player on his team or playing on the number one team in his sport. According to Gordon, “George didn’t measure himself against others. He wanted to be the best he could be.”
As part of that effort, he learned an entirely new position midway through his college career, a move that almost certainly meant he would not initially be the best player at that position. While it certainly would mean less glory for himself, his team needed him there.
It’s hard work to have this mindset on a playing field or in the workplace. It’s tempting to focus all our attention on competing to be the best, not the best we can be. Better to follow George Boiardi’s example and turn that fierce competitive drive inward in an effort to add Porter’s “unique mix of value” to our teams.
Chase greatness with the one percent rule
"Every day, it’s important to wake up and strive to be better today than you were yesterday. Identify what you need to work on to get better and focus on improving each day. Don’t settle for average. Instead, chase greatness."
Complacency is the curse of any teammate. It’s all too easy to take a play off, back off a little on effort or let someone else step forward during a seemingly inconsequential moment.
But for Jon Gordon, that’s no way to chase greatness as a team.
By looking at the example of George Boiardi, Gordon encourages readers to give one percent more than what otherwise would be expected because “a little more time, energy, effort, practice, focus and care can bring big results.” And the first step is to identify the specific areas where we should be giving that extra effort.
In a few weeks, I’ll get my copy of The Hard Hat back from my son. Between now and then, I’m hoping that he, you and I will continue to chase greatness the way George Boiardi did, as a hard-working teammate driven to give whatever it takes to provide a unique mix of value to our teams.